By Miriam Raftery
June 27, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – By a 6-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court today upheld a federal law that allows a person to be banned for life from owning a gun if they commit domestic abuse “recklessly,” even if the actions were not premeditated.
The case, Voisine v. United States, was brought by two men in Maine who lost their rights to own guns after being convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors. Both had extensive records of violence.
Voisine pled guilty to beating up his girlfriend in 2003 and was convicted in 2005 of again beating up a girlfriend. Federal authorities later found he shot and killed a baby bald eagle. He was charged both for killing an endangered bird and illegally possessing a gun.
The co-plaintiff, William Armstrong III, was twice convicted of beating his wife, in 2002 and 2008. Both cases were misdemeanor charges. After police searched his home for drugs, they found six guns and charged him with illegal weapons possession.
The National Domestic Hotline provided evidence to the court in its brief indicating that “reckless acts” to which domestic violence victims were subjected including a woman who said her husband shot at her feet, another who said her partner sat on her chest and pointed a gun at her temple, and a third who reported her abuser played “Russian Roulette” and pulled the trigger.
The only group to weigh in on behalf of Voisine and Anderson was the Gun Owners of America, a gun rights organization that filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that a misdemeanor conviction should not be sufficient grounds to deprive a U.S. citizen of a Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, praised the action noting that courts are often lenient on abusers and prosecutors often settle out cases as misdemeanors instead of felonies, making it hard to protect victims from future abuse.
“The Supreme Court today affirmed what we know—domestic violence escalates and is often deadly, she said. “Ensuring that convicted abusers do not have access to firearms will save lives.”
The presence of a gun increases the likelihood of death occurring in a domestic violence situation six-fold, according to States United Against Domestic Violence.
The case challenged the Lautenberg amendment to the federal 2006 Gun Control Act. At least 18 states have similar measures prohibiting convicted abusers from owning guns.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority opinion, raising concerns over denying individuals a constitutional right potentially for life.
While the case addressed only domestic violence cases, similar logic might in the future be applied to uphold other limits on gun ownership, such as if any individual is on a terrorist watch list, has been convicted of other violence crimes or actions such as the Bundy followers’ seizure of public lands, recklessly threatened people at a school or workplace, or has a history of mental illness that could make that person a danger to others.